Why I think Kaaviyathalaivan failed

Given that I have watched this Mysskin speech, I am restraining myself from using abusive words when I talk about Kaaviyathalaivan. Let’s see how well I fare.

There’s nothing wrong with the film’s story. But, just the way it was executed and the things the director chose to focus on, caused immense irritation to me.

“Body and heart in sync is acting”

The scene in which Prithviraj plays the role of Surapadman first and then Siddharth plays a different version of it, was the only correctly executed scene. You could sense the passion that Prithviraj had for becoming Rajapart (a term I shall always refer to with amusement for the rest of my life). And you could sense the casualness with which Siddharth played it. That scene informs us that there is nothing wrong with these two actors. It’s just the way they’ve been handled in the rest of the scenes that causes me immense agony. There were several close-up shots throughout the film, in which I felt the reactions were a touch too melodramatic. It felt like the director from behind the camera was saying, “Sir.. innum konjam emotion.”

For a film that talks a lot about acting (Nasser saying that superb line about heart and body in sync), I felt this film had some of the worst acting performances. The flashback of the two kids and how the other kids make fun of a younger Siddharth for example. Seemed like it was shot in 5 minutes. “Aan thambi anga poi nillu pa. Ippo azhu. Aan thambi nee avanukku aarudhal sollu. Apdiye towards the camera nadanga. Aan ok. Super. Cut. Take ok.” And then, this scene is replayed in the end when Prithviraj thinks of Siddharth. The concept is top-notch, but pathetic execution. Now I can imagine how horrible Nayagan would have turned out to be, had the initial portion when Kamal is a kid not been executed properly. “Then Paandi Cheemaiyile…” in Nayagan’s climax with visuals from Velu’s past tugs at my heart. These visuals at the end, don’t elicit any reaction.

The Culprits

Of course, the director is the prime culprit for poor execution. But, I would also blame cinematographer Mr. Nirav Shah and the editor Mr. Praveen for this. Camera movements during several scenes were completely unnecessary. When the dramatic tone of the acting is high, and you’re moving the camera as well, it just increases the drama to a pitch that is unpalatable. And I must really applaud the way Mr. Nirav Shah positions his actors in front of the camera. The man doesn’t seem to care about the performance. All he wants is to have symmetry in his frames. Saivam is the best example for this. You pause at any frame in the film showing the family members. They will all be positioned such that everyone’s face is visible in the frame and the frame looks nice and balanced. What he does not seem to understand is that when you restrict actors within such physical positions, it affects their acting. An experienced director would have probably not allowed such stuff to happen. But, Kaaviyathalaivan seems to be the best example of what happens when an inexperienced director and an insensible cinematographer pair up.

Let me give you some classic examples. There’s a scene in which Nasser addresses his pupils during the confrontation with Bairavan. In that shot, he will walk towards a nearby pillar and rest his right hand on it, say a line and then walk away. I bet that movement was defined by Mr. Nirav Insensible Shah, because it looks good in the camera frame. But the actual result? The acting looks contrived.

Then, there’s the shot of Siddarth’s comeback. By the time, the assistant tells Prithviraj that he has found a special actor for Karna Moksham, the entire theatre knows it is going to be Siddharth. But what does Mr. Nirav Shah do? “No sir we shouldn’t show directly that it is Siddharth. I have an idea. Get some lights. We will frame a nice silhouette shot. And let Siddharth walk slowly in and enter a field of light. Epdi effect? Super ah?” Mr. Nirav and crew, how did you guys fail to realize that this shot actually prolongs the agony of the audience?

Then, there’s a cutaway shot of Nasser smiling as the two kids (younger Prithviraj & Siddharth) learn the tricks of the trade. The backdrop is a lush blue evening sky. Nasser’s face lit in yellow for contrast. The impact that script demands : “Nasser’s pride & joy on watching his pupils.” Actual impact: “Wow! What a picturesque frame!” I feel like telling Mr. Nirav what Siddharth says about the heroine’s acting, “Azhaga irundhuchu. Avlo dhaan.”

And the edit seems to have been in a hurry. Several spots required a bit more time for better impact. But, Praveen seems to have been in a Chennai 28ish mood. Chak-chak-chak. The scene in which Prithviraj beats up Siddharth, he keeps cutting between a wide angle and a closeup of Prithviraj. This is the editing school of thought that if you quicken the pace of cuts, the scene becomes more intense. Not applicable in this scene. It would have turned out much better simply staying on the wide angle. Prithviraj’s performance would have carried it through. A good performance does not need a closeup to highlight it.

Siddharth’s passion for Freedom Struggle

This has to be the film’s weirdest moment. During the staging of a play, an audience member suddenly gets up and asks some random feminist question. And then Siddharth gives an even more random reply where he questions the audience member if he is patriotic. And then he sings a song about how all the people have accepted being a slave and how Mother India is crying or some shit like that. Dei!! When did you even establish that Siddharth is passionate about freedom movement da? Or is this supposed to be that establishing scene? And if he is knowledgeable to question the audience member like that, then how come in the jail he tells other freedom fighters that he was ignorant of the political happenings until then? Sathyama purila. And semma kaduppu varudhu.

In Indian, when Kamal shoots a British puppet because it was beating an Indian puppet, I didn’t feel amused. It is quite a dramatic scene, but executed so well. And it’s such a concise way of conveying Kamal’s passion for the freedom movement. And to establish how Sukanya begins to admire him. Economical and effective storytelling and character establishment. The reason I mention Indian is of course because the shot of freedom fighters throwing clothes into a circular pit in Kaaviyathalaivan is inspired from a similar shot in Indian. So kandippa Mr. Nirav and Vasanthabalan have seen other movies depicting pre-independence India. But they don’t seem to have learnt one key thing.

Economical Storytelling

Why can’t Tamil filmmakers simply understand this? When I watched the Kaaviyathalaivan trailer, I knew from a few pointers that the film is going to have rivalry between the two lead actors. You see Prithviraj saying “Kaali kaali. Ellathukkum Kaali, ellathulayum Kaali”. You see him staring at Siddharth in one of the shots and in another Siddharth is shown beating the ground crying in agony. These few shots tell us the actual core of the film. And the director has simply stretched these shots into a long and draggy two and a half hours affair, by adding komanam comedies, a little bit of hip-shaking here & some kisses there, and some lead-up scenes to the hip-shaking.

To zoom in on a particular example – the portion of Bairavan leaving Nasser’s drama school. Thambi Ramaiyah begging him not to leave and Bairavan talking to him, asking him to leave as well – all completely unnecessary. Does not add any value to the core of the film.

Irrelevant Comedy

Please someone ban Thambi Ramaiyyah from acting (I’ve hated this guy right from Kumki.). And that other character who played sidekick to Siddharth. Tearing up the veshti into komanams, longing for a girl who finally ran away with another guy, getting poked in sensitive body parts – are all of these supposed to induce me to laugh? It seemed like someone said to the Director, “Sir padam konjam heavy subject. Konjam comedy thoovi vidunga. Appo audience innum relaxed ah paappaanga.” Poda goyya! Then what is the difference between you and a fellow who throws in a few item numbers? If you want to make a film on the Tamil theatre scene of the past, then be serious about it.

I am reminded of the koothu team in Anbe Sivam. That showed a man passionate about getting a message across to the audience through street plays. The interactions between the group members was much more believable there. That also had a “love failure” comedy track with Pounu Kunju and Uma Riyaz. But that worked. This doesn’t.

Zero Involvement

The movie never made me feel anything. The romance between the zamindar’s daughter and Siddharth. The jealousy of Prithviraj. The angst of Siddharth. The comedy of Thambi Ramaiyyah and co. Nope! I was just watching the movie stone-faced. Only a single line from a drunk Mansoor Ali Khan to Prithviraj evoked a mild smile. That’s it.

Of course, there will be a bunch of Tamil people who will hail this film as a stupendous effort. “History of Tamil theatre theriyuma? Namma culture theriyuma? And you know va? This film actually makes a reference to bla bla bla (insert random, useless historical facts here).” My response would be this. Ponga da buffaloes!

My Request to Vasanthabalan

See Vasanthabalan. Please understand. I am not criticizing you. I am not asking silly “logical” questions like how did Prithviraj get a gun. Nor am I saying you got inspired from Amadeus. In fact, I understand you (and editor Praveen) have experimented in some portions of the film. I appreciate that you did not show the opening shot of Prithviraj holding the gun again. I appreciate that you intercut the argument scene with Bairavan with a painter drawing the picture of the play’s central character. I appreciate the last conversation that Prithviraj and Siddharth have. I appreciate the setting you’ve chosen for your story. I appreciate the detail you’ve added to scenes. Like Siddharth muttering the same dialogues under his breath when Prithviraj performs Surapadman role. Or the fact that whenever there’s a play happening on stage there is a photograph of the guru of that playwright. (Nasser’s plays have his guru’s photo while Prithviraj’s plays have Nasser’s photo in the sideline.) Or the fact that artists used to get notes pinned on their clothes as a sign of appreciation. Good. Shows you and your team have put in effort. 

But, when you’re making a film like this make sure you don’t partner with people like Mr. Nirav Shah. He is meant for another kind of cinema, in which slow motion stuff makes fans delirious. If you join with him, he will make you have a shot, where the love of Siddharth’s life is shown falling in slow motion like Dumbledore falling from the tower in the Half Blood Prince. And he will convince you that showing an empty space littered with play posters will enhance the impact that the play space is now deserted.

And don’t make mistakes like having unmotivated narration. And try to see how you can convey a plot development or character trait in a concise way, without wasting screen time. You’ve done this in some places, like the initial chat that Siddharth and Prithviraj have while watching Bairavan act. That little chat tells us all about these characters and their understanding of acting. But, that conciseness seems to be missing at other places. Just take care of that in future ok?

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